The ongoing concern about the relatively low rate of take up of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects by students attending the high schools of the United Kingdom has led to the creation of outreach programmes tailored for that demographic.
A particularly striking example of this is the joint initiative which was established in the UK by the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and Boeing back in 2008. Dubbed the "Schools Build-a-Plane Challenge", the idea was to provide an ultralight aircraft in kit form (funded by prime sponsor Boeing) to schools which would then undertake to build, certify, fly and then sell on a viable aircraft. The wide range of skills involved in this covers both theoretical and practical application of STEM disciplines. The nature of the project means that there is hands-on learning and practical problem-solving which really captures the imagination of the participating student teams engaged in the challenge.
Between 2009 and 2012 six schools around the UK were selected to participate in this scheme, and although the primary selection was for pupils in the 14-18 age group, some as young as 11 became involved . The initial take up varied with about 40 or more taking part in each project but those numbers naturally fluctuate through the course of the build depending on the availability and progress of the pupils . However, a core group does remain throughout the build. The SBAP Challenge has encouraged girls to participate in STEM. For example, Marling School partnered with the girls school, Stroud High School and in total there were more girls involved in the project than boys. Aeronautical expertise is provided by liaison officers who are members of the local branch of the RAeS and the UK Light Aviation Authority (LAA) who advise the teachers/lecturers and the student teams. The Deputy Chief Engineer of the LAA sits on the SBAP Advisory Committee to provide advice and guidance related to airworthiness and licensing.
The kits (RANS S6ES Coyote II) were sequentially provided to the schools, for which the most obvious milestone was naturally the first flight of the aircraft, and so far three aircraft have flown, two of them at the Farnborough International Airshow in the 2014 flying display. Over and above the introduction to and application of the STEM subjects, there is significant benefit to learning the discipline of working to a time schedule and controlled plan. This, together with understanding the imperatives integral to aviation work where safety and respect of procedures is paramount, provides a real-word education in the broadest sense. Students have taken part in the presentation of the project itself - designing websites, handling media interest, devising publicity, static displays and attending exhibitions across the UK, including the Farnborough International Airshow. The importance of teamwork and presentational skills becomes evident, and this draws out and develops competency in those areas thus building soft skills and confidence. The very existence of such a project at a participating school has engendered further interest within the school, and has also boosted the appeal of the school to the local community. This programme is gradually reaching its ultimate goal - one aircraft has already been sold on and the money reinvested in the programme.